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After Sunday's triumph over the rival New York Jets, the New England Patriots have only one daunting opponent remaining on their regular-season schedule: themselves.
In a way, defeating the Jets might have been the easiest of the eight games the Patriots play in the second half of the season. Sounds crazy, right? But there was absolutely no way the Patriots were going to look past their primary rival in a monster division tilt, particularly on the heels of losing back-to-back games.
The rest of their games? It won't be that simple.
From now until New Year's Day, the toughest challenge facing Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his staff will be keeping their team focused on a slate of opponents in which only the stumbling Buffalo Bills (5-4) currently boast a record above .500 (and by Week 17, that game will be an afterthought unless the Bills get back on track).
The Patriots' upcoming opponents are not just battered, they're bruised. Over the next three weeks, New England is expected to face the Matt Cassel-less Chiefs, the Peyton Manning-less Colts, and maybe even the Michael Vick-less Eagles depending on the extent of his rib injury.
After that? Will Tim Tebow still be all the rage by the time the Patriots trek to Denver? Albert Haynesworth's release last week rendered a visit to Washington decidedly less intriguing. And the AFC East crown could be in hand by the time the Dolphins and Bills visit Gillette Stadium to wrap up the season.
New England's seven remaining opponents have a woeful .328 winning percentage with a combined record of 21-43. Five of the seven teams lost this past weekend and the two that won were going head-to-head with another team on the Patriots' second-half schedule.
Yes, there's a red carpet to playoff football laid out for the Patriots and, really, all they have to do is stay on track.
Which is why Belichick is doing his best to ensure the one-game-at-a-time mentality that he preaches is being adhered to throughout the locker room. All that matters to New England is the next game.
|With his Jets victory dance out of his system, Deion Branch says it's time to focus on the Chiefs.|
"No matter what happened last week, whether we won or lost, at home or on the road or in London, it doesn't matter," Belichick said. "Once that game is over we have to put it behind us and turn the page and move on. We really don't talk about it. We don't dwell on it, good or bad. Whatever happened, happened. Whatever we can learn from what happened, we try to learn from.
"I think whichever team Monday night that plays the best will win Monday night. I don't think our performance Monday night has, really, a lot to do with what happened [Sunday versus the Jets]. I think it has to do with our preparation and our readiness and our overall execution performance come Monday night. I think that's what it's really about, starting with myself and everybody else.
"Look, I have a job to do. I'm not a player. Players aren't coaching, but as a coach, you have a job to do. Whatever happened last week is done. Now it's about preparing for Kansas City, what they do, what their schemes are, what their players are, what their tendencies are in certain coaching decision situations that we'll have to make, that I'll have to make, what we want to do in those situations. So you're starting all over again. It's a whole new deal."
With that in mind, Patriots players were instructed to ignore the hype that will surround the team after a convincing win Sunday night at MetLife Stadium. Some pundits were ready to bury the Patriots after their back-to-back losses, but a win over the Jets washed away all those troubles.
"We beat these guys [the Jets], now probably people will be saying we're back on top," Patriots receiver Deion Branch said during his weekly call into Boston sports radio WEEI. "It was just one game. We went out and played a good game. We made more plays than they did. Now it's time to focus on Kansas City. Like Coach Belichick always says, 'Don't believe the hype.' Because it's going to be there. But it's all about what we're doing at that time and moment."
The Patriots are hardly talented enough to allow hype to impact their play. Even with that cupcake schedule, New England desperately needs to make progress on both sides of the ball if it wants to be competitive when the games get difficult again in the postseason.
Leave it to an old Patriot to sum it up best. During his weekly day-after-game chat on ESPN Boston, NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi noted: "I think the toughest test now is the possibility of dealing with success. I think [the Patriots] showed incredible mental toughness to go into the Meadowlands and win. But now are they satisfied?
"This team has shown in the past that it's often tougher to deal with success than adversity. Are they looking ahead at their schedule and thinking they've made it to the playoffs? They have to approach every game from here on out like they approached last night, even though it's the softest schedule in the NFL remaining."
The Patriots have long thrived in the underdog role and struggled at times to be the front-runner. There's certainly less pressure to be mortal than to be perfect -- just ask the 2007 team.
New England has a terrific opportunity to position itself well for postseason success. It simply has to stay out its own way.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.